What an exhausting day at work: I rode a weather balloon, went scuba diving to see how tsunamis form underwater, and watched a glacier melt before my startled eyes. Frankly, I could use a nap.

No, I’m not a jet-setting climatologist, and I wasn’t just daydreaming at my desk job. For the past few days I’ve been logging on to a virtual world called Meteora, which was launched earlier this year by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in Second Life, the richly-limned online community of some six million participants that my 24-year-old colleague calls “SimCity on crack.”

In Meteora, you (or rather, your “avatar”) can visit and learn about environments that few of us will ever experience—like the upper layers of the stratosphere, where the National Weather Service collects meteorological data; or the depths of the ocean floor where NOAA’s submarines study aquatic life. You can also leave comments on what you’re seeing, and even participate in presentations at the Crawford Building, NOAA’s first, virtual conference hall. “Meteora provides a new way of communicating with the public,” says Eric Hackathorn, the chief architect and project manager for NOAA’s virtual worlds. “Most government agencies simply disseminate information to a passive audience. Here we’re trying something different.”

Be forewarned: If the acme of your experience with video realms consists of getting the sixth-highest Pac-Man score at the mall in 1986 (as mine does), you might find Meteora a little confounding. Sometimes, signs point you to areas and objects that you can explore, but I often found myself helplessly traversing the program’s virtual island, asking other avatars for help (and sometimes offending them, like the time I tried to greet another visitor but accidentally dissed him instead). “It’s not a game, so you’re not shooting enemies or accumulating points—you have to actively seek out things to get the most out of the experience,” says Juan Garcia, 28, a filmmaker I met in Meteora, who is working with the University of Texas at Austin to create online communities and virtual classrooms with Second Life.

In Meteora, Garcia has hopped onto a merry-go-round that spins you underneath a hurricane, and he also rode an orca whale around the island—two features I’ve yet to stumble upon. He’s also met several other visitors: a 12-year-old boy from Hungary, a couple of 30-something visitors from France, and an 18-year-old girl from Long Island, NY who’s planning to study biomedical engineering. “Online communities like NOAA’s have the ability to connect far-flung people around a common interest,” he says.

Right now the information on Meteora is targeted for middle and high school students, but Hackathorn says the agency plans to add content geared toward college students and the general public. To date, most of the site’s visitors are people in their mid- and upper 30s, who have likely been reading NOAA’s publicity about the site. “We’re still in the prototype phase right now, investigating how it’s used and who’s using it,” he says. But, he adds, virtual worlds will become increasingly important in communicating information as the technology improves and is adopted by more people. “One day having an avatar will probably be just as common as having an e-mail address.”

For the moment, however, logging on to Meteora is a bit like visiting an intriguing foreign country—one where the language and local customs elude you. Still, it’s worth a quick trip or two. Where else can you see storm systems develop in real time on a 3-D weather map of the US? Or fly through a hurricane just like brave NOAA pilots do when gathering research data?

One last note: If you’re affronted by an avatar named Zevart Voom when you’re visiting, please cut her some slack. She might just be trying to ask for help.

Story by Deborah Snoonian. This article originally appeared in "Plenty" in July 2007.

Copyright Environ Press 2007

My so-called second life
A virtual world takes visitors across the globe and inside the forces of nature-all with the click of a mouse.